Rory Cellan-Jones

Twitter - too corporate by half?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 3 Jul 09, 08:23 GMT

Is Twitter suddenly in a dangerous place, risking alienating users by becoming far too corporate, while failing to make any cash from those feeding off it? Three incidents in 24 hours have provoked that question.

First, I was invited by BBC colleagues to speak at an internal "summit"on the use of Twitter in our operations. Then I saw our story about the marketing agency promising to buy Twitter followers for clients. Finally there was a press release from a PR agency boasting that its client's product had dominated conversation on the micro-blogging service for an entire day.

Twitter home pageNow mine is just one of many organisations suddenly scratching their heads over the potential - and the pitfalls - of using Twitter, but the fact that we and others are holding seminars about it is a sign that this network is becoming less social, more corporate.

And what about this Australian "social media marketing agency" - scary enough in itself - which thinks it can make money by selling me and other Twitterers to anyone who wants to buy us?

As a long-term user, I'm both appalled and fascinated by the idea. I'm a few hundred users short of 10,000 followers and so would love to acquire a few more in my increasingly desperate attempt to overhaul a couple of the UK's top technology writers.

But rest assured, I won't be paying uSocial to spam you with entreaties to come and hear about my personal and professional life - though if you need to find me I'm at

And what value do the brands who do sign up for this service think they're getting - surely they are likely to antagonise more people than they attract?

But it was the e-mail from the PR firm which really got my goat. It boasted that its client, a software firm which I shall not name, had managed to become the top trend on Twitter by promising big prizes in a competition to people who tweeted its name.

This achievement has been lauded not just by the PR agency but by bloggers too as an example of the right way to engage in "social" marketing. But the result is that it has made Twitter a much less useful and enjoyable place to be for a day, with corporate messages intruding into the conversation. So forget "#iranelection" - or even "#andymurray" - from now on the trending topics are likely to be "#winbigatpoker" or "#loseweightnowaskmehow."

Of course, we need to be realistic - Twitter is a business, not a charity, and does need to make some money at some stage. But the irony is that none of the marketing agencies, global brands or media giants clambering onto the back of this fast-growing network appears to be handing over a penny to Twitter.

Instead, @ev and @biz, Twitter's founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, seem to be looking on while others launch a marketing blitz which could do serious damage to their relationship with their users


  • Comment number 1.

    Any action which is forced is subsequently of no value to anyone.

    It's like forced confessions "achieved" whilst the confessor is under torture. Or conversions to another religion, presumably just for the sake of it.

    If someone agrees to something just to shut you up, then it's a shallow and meaningless agreement.

    On the twitter front - I'm following Rory and about 5ish other friends on there. About once every 2 months I thing "heh, twitter... let's have a look" and usually every entry in the newsfeed is ruskin147 ;)

    But to be honest, I really thing twitter is rubbish. I know others may disagree but that's my opinion - I don't quite see how it's become so popular, as it's like Facebook but JUST your status, none of the other useful bits....

    Don't get me wrong, I'm a massive techno geek and I love all things techy, but twitter just doesn't do it for me. It seems like it's only worth doing it if I update it several times a day, and to have to do that would make me feel like I was in proverbial chains. What's more, if you updated your facebook status several times a day people would say "get a life, you spend too much time on facebook!"

    That said, despite my slagging off of twitter.... I wish I'd had the idea before them :p

  • Comment number 2.

    If you're talking about the campaign that I think you're talking about, then it certainly isn't lauded by PR people who work in this space. It might have achieved its goal of dominating conversation on the day, but it simply did it via bribery. A prize draw isn't very clever or very social. Much better if it had been something that offered value to everyone on Twitter - giving them some information, amusing them, anything that is of value rather than a greedy grab for a prize.

  • Comment number 3.

    Very enjoyable read, it would be interesting to hear more about your thoughts on how the BBC could ride this ghost train - especially wrt the rise of social gadgets.

  • Comment number 4.

    There was some very interesting analysis from Robin Goad at Hitwise recently about the downstream traffic from Twitter versus Google, Facebook and Hotmail. It showed that traffic to retail sites is relatively low from Twitter and that most of it goes to news or entertainment sites.

    This fits with Twitters pure, raw conversational style. It may be verbally transactional, but it isnt a shop. Because it is hyper-networking (you can be talking with many at the same time) mood also spreads amazingly quickly. The community is very spam averse, as evidenced by the Habitat story a couple of weeks ago (Habitat were said to have attached unrelated hashtags to commercially orientated tweets with the sole objective of getting a bigger audience for their message and thereby driving traffic to their site. Instead, Habitat was driven into retreat by a none-too-happy community and the story made the national media.)

    There are a few interesting lessons emerging from the Hitwise data and the Habitat experience.

    Firstly, overt promotional tactics will never work in the Twitter community. Its a bit like interrupting pub chats with enforced commercial breaks. It just wont happen.

    Whats as interesting is what this says about how brands and brand advocates work on Twitter. Its too early to say perhaps, but my feeling is that the only promotional tactic that will work in the Twitter universe is the expression of genuine opinion, and then:

    a) only if expressed in a raw and compelling way, and
    b) only if Twitter is seen to be a secondary or even tertiary influencing tool rather than something more overt and direct.

    If a shop sets up a Twitterfeed, for instance, who is going to want to follow it if the content is just about products on offer, however compelling they are? Thats advertising.

    The shop needs to create an unspun voice, offer genuinely interesting content and build a community of advocates over time and time really is the killer punch. This is no overnight medium. Anyone who believes that Twitter will pay rapid commercial dividends for their business is mistaken. Its a long haul project, based on nuance, as anyone who is familiar with it will know.

    The sensitivity with which Twitter must be handled was brought home to me the other day. I was interested in gauging the reaction to a programme on television that had focused heavily on a brand (a sort of crowd-sourced TV review, if you like). I searched all Twitter for references and looked at them chronologically. During the minutes prior to the programme and immediately after it started there were plenty of tweets pointing to the fact that Twitterer A, B, C, etc was about to sit down and watch, to paraphrase, an interesting programme about brand x on channel y. These died off after the first 10 or so minutes of the programme to be replaced by reactions to the programme, which in the main were less than favourable and had some pointedly critical reactions to the brand. The point is that the change in mood was very clear - moving from what looked like the staged tweets of relative automatons to the real views of people watching the programme.

    I cant be certain, but it seemed to me that a highly paid digital media consultancy was probably stacking Twitter with references to the programme in order to promote it. And then the real voices came in. What all this says to me is that the raw and unfiltered world of Twitter will be un-exploitable by brands unless their advocates are truly interested in, and able to express a candid, interesting and engaging view about whatever brand they are advocating. Only the unvarnished truth will stand any chance of applying any gloss to a brands bottom line.

  • Comment number 5.

    With every TV and Radio programme witlessly blathering on about Twitter at every opportunity, it seems somehow just that it should now be buried under a deluge of SPAM. Just rewards I say.

  • Comment number 6.

    The question on the front page for this article is "Will Twitter alienate users if it becomes too corporate? "

    May I respond by saying that the Corporations overuse and constant plugging of Twitter is already alienating non-users.

  • Comment number 7.

    Yes, the trend for spamming followers is irritating too. Makes me wonder how Twitter would change if the numbers of followers were hidden.

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm still trying to work out whether Twitter is worth it. As a sales tool, it's useless. As a networking tool, it's excellent - but like any other networking it needs a lot of attention (and whether THAT is worth it is what I'm still figuring out). And like any other networking, it's what you give away for free that may/may not attract people to what you do to make a living. Until the people behind Twitter explain to users how to get the most out of it, how to set realistic objectives, how to filter out the increasing and unwanted pornographic or sales spam ... they don't deserve to make a penny from it. Frankly, they've released it on a social-networking-addicted world without thinking things through. And apparently it's up to us, the users, to figure out how to make it work ... no other product manufacturer would expect to make a profit this way. Why should Twitter?
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 9.

    I have clearly stated on my account "I will never buy anything that is marketed to my via followers or @replies"

    The bosses at twitter need to:

    Ban bots (automated machines which reply to tweets containing keywords)

    Charge anyone who follows more than (say) 500 people to use the service - this is far more than anyone who is using twitter for personal use. (sorry Stephen Fry - you are not reading all those tweets). include people who rotate their user base, or set up multiple accounts.

    Make every 10th tweet received an advert.

    hey presto - twitter controls revenue, and we the tweeters are saved from spammers.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hold the front [web] page.

    "Twitter is rubbish."

    Who knew ?

  • Comment number 11.

    My apologies if I was too outspoken at (8). Always a risk when commenting on an unfamiliar blog! Or was it not permitted to refer to my Tweetname (or whatever you're supposed to call it) in the content? Advice would be appreciated, if anyone knows.


  • Comment number 12.

    What irks me about Twitter is the number of spammers / advertisers who start following you in the hope you'll be a mindless automaton and automatically follow them well as visit their website and "do business" with them.

    It's not helped when Twitter seems to be suffering a bug in it's "blocking" process - although you can still "block" users, it doesn't stop them following you (which is the whole point of "blocking")

    You also can't manually report spammers / advertisers to Twitter - accounts to be examined are only automatically flagged if a suspiciously high number of people start blocking them. Even if the account is suspended, it will still be following you until you manually "block" it.

    The number of times I've investigated followers, only to be met by the "foul owl"...


    Then again, one of the beauties of Twitter is that it can be used not just for personal updates, but can also be hooked up to an RSS feed to provide an automated service - @BBCBreaking is a good example (Breaking News headlines from, er, BBC News, surprisingly...) and I've got an account tweeting a severely mashed up version of the BBC weather forecast and observations for Coventry (@CovWeather).

    Now let's hope Twitter finish the block bug soon, as having publicised at least one of my accounts (the second shouldn't be too hard to guess), I have a feeling I'll be inundated with spammer followers soon...

  • Comment number 13.

    Twitter is something I look at occasionally but don't really use much. I wonder how many people realise that search engines index all those posts so you can be found quite easily if someone (prospective employer?) cares to look. My Twitter account is locked and restricted to a few friends, I have no need of an audience, nor time to wade through endless comments from hundreds of other people.

  • Comment number 14.

    Twitter is a joke/farce/rubbish take your pick.

    It will never make any real money imho. Check out this quote from its founder:

    ""We don't know all the ways we're going to use that money, hopefully we'll keep a lot of it in the bank. If we never need a lot of it, that's great..."

  • Comment number 15.

    now i've saved twitter, (see above) lets get #weetabixfacts (dubious "facts" about breakfast biscuits (other breakfasts are avaiable folks) into the trending topics.

  • Comment number 16.

    Still waiting and hoping the fad will wear off soon for the BBC, so we can get sweet release. It's everywhere... chat shows, news, radio and of course, the epicentre... Mr Cellan-Jones. That "summit" you were speaking at Rory... the strapline should have been "Twitter: Have we not flogged this to death yet?"

    When my regional BBC weather forecaster spends the first half of the broadcast plugging her Twitter page, coupled with the Twitter logo and screenshots of the page (bbcweathernorth incidentally), then you know it's started to go a little too far. Please let's not forget this is a commerical 3rd party.

  • Comment number 17.

    Have you got uncertainties about Twitter? The solution is to move to another microblogging service, e.g. Jaiku or Plurk. I consult in schools and if they are wanting to use microblogging as part of their teaching then Laconica - configured so that it's only available to staff/students of that school - is the way to go. Come on Beeb: when are we going to start hearing about the many popular alternatives to Twitter?

  • Comment number 18.

    I have been following #digitalbritain and trying to make the occassional contribution.

    The occassional good insight is bogged down with repeated references to same blog or announcement or cat call for fiber everywhere but not who pays. There seemed a large group of professional social networkers there to monitor the mood of the reportings as an exercise in itself, which makes it shallower still.

    Probably quite good as part of a specific political campaigning device.

  • Comment number 19.

    An experiment ... just to check which of my possible misdemeanours got me modded. Apols for those expecting to find informed debate on this thread but I need to know what I did wrong so I don't repeat offend!


  • Comment number 20.

    Number 16 makes an excellent point here. The BBC is turning Twitter into an unofficial franchise. You don't own Twitter, you don't have shares in Twitter, you don't have business deals with Twitter, yet Twitter is seen by the BBC and their tech-savvy reporters as the medium of choice to have with the viewing public.

    One must acknowledge the vested interest BBC has in both the iPhone and Twitter. They aren't just excellent pieces of technology. They belong to a journalistic revolution that even the BBC admits to championing. The combination of such technologies allows the general population to take on the temporary mantle of journalist and reporter, providing updates, confirming sights and offering incremental anecdotes over the events unfolding, real-time, anywhere in the world. To put it bluntly, the iPhone and Twitter makes their job easier, and significantly more efficient.

    As such, the BBC must feel it has a responsibility to report and blog about Twitter and the iPhone, in equal measure. Time will only tell if Rory and other BBC reporters clamp down on their Twitter/iPhone addiction.

  • Comment number 21.

    So, it was my unkind comments on Twitter's likelihood of making a profit that upset the mods. Sorry folks. Will water my thoughts down a bit in future. ;o)

  • Comment number 22.

    "We don't know all the ways we're going to use that money, hopefully we'll keep a lot of it in the bank. If we never need a lot of it, that's great..." #14

    That's the 22 million dollars venture capital invested by 'Dragons' he's talking about. Twitter still needs to work out how it is to make a profit.

    The companies offering prizes are just copying what happens on mobile networks; expect the scams and pranksters to follow soon.

  • Comment number 23.

    For anyone not totally bored yet with my whingeing (apols again!) I have been emailed - and it *was* the reference to my tweet name that they didn't like. Should have realised, from house rules on the PM blog, silly me. Will leave you all in peace now...


  • Comment number 24.


    Believe it or not this wasnt a PR driven idea, and was something wed been developing ourselves at Moonfruit to drive awareness of the brand and connect with our customers in a creative way.

    We actually only asked Bite to send out the release after we had had direct contact from journalists at the FT, Mashable, Brand Republic, ClickZ and more asking us about the campaign. This included questions about specific results generated from it, which is why we included some traffic data. So we put together a summary of what had happened and sent it out.

    Now Im sorry if that came across as self congratulatory, that wasnt the intention.

    There is also no doubt we were trying to create buzz on Twitter, but the response has been far greater than we imagined. If you read the comments flying in (300/minute at peak) they are overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. People are playing with the brand and developing their own ideas and content.

    There are images being created, videos on youtube and a raft of other initiatives. People are choosing to be a part of this, and their input is pretty extraordinary.

    Were actually trying to build on the more creative responses and shift the campaign away from sheer volume and noise. And were also looking at ways to adapt it to cope with some of the criticism.

    Whether Twitter should be used like this is certainly a real debate. It may sound rich that Im saying that, but this is a learning experience for all of us.

    Perhaps this kind of thing will help Twitter monetise. For example a sponsored/competition list could be separate from the normal trends lists. Companies could pay to be a part, and customers could choose to filter out these topics from their streams. Who knows, thats something Twitter will have to address, but wed be very happy to be involved in the debate.

    I hope that gives you a bit more context. And were sorry if we offended you or Rory. Were happy to share results with you, but only if youre interested. Thanks,

    Wendy Tan White (Founder

    ps. we provide DIY website software in case you still hadnt noticed ;-)

  • Comment number 25.

    Fifi - keep on whingeing. the BBC need to get some consistancy in their moderation.

    spread the word - #weetabixfacts is number 11 in the trending topics. probably

  • Comment number 26.

    I will never buy moonfruit's products.

    (not that i would anyway).

    bribing people into creating spam is pretty low. I'd cut any friend who sent me your spam off from my feed immediately.

  • Comment number 27.

    Good to see blatant advertising is allowed on the BBC Blogs in post 24.

  • Comment number 28.

    Anyone who spams hashtags just because a) a website told them to or b) it's already a trending topic and they want to join in the "fun" gets removed from my follow list (and most probably blocked for good measure); I have no interest in people marketing stuff at me, no matter how organically this marketing is acheived. People who are considering using Twitter as a marketing tool need to consider the fact that 90% of the content (most of which is spammy) is produced by %10 of users, and that most of the other 90% either isn't watching in the first place or isn't going to be sucked in by shoddy marketing.

    I use Twitter for getting hold of news/current events, political opinion and technology chitter chatter (Thanks Rory!) and occasionally for airing my own views, and if a genuine product is promoted along the way I might pay attention, but only if the promoter is acting out of helpfulness or informativeness, not just to line his own pockets.

  • Comment number 29.

    Post 24: Hello moderators, is there anyone there? This blog is supposed to be pre-moderated, but these adverts seem to continually slip through the net.

  • Comment number 30.

    Other Microblogging sites are availible from all good Internet stockists.

  • Comment number 31.

    Twitter is just another attention grabbing site, a sort of "ive got more followers than you" type of nonsense. Its now full of celebrities and spam companies, it used to be cool...but that time has long since past.

  • Comment number 32.

    I don't understand how people can attack and rage at 'tools'.

    Twitter is a tool. Ignore the 'What are you doing?' stock question. It's not about status updates necessarily- just communication. Sharing with an extended network of mutually interested people.

    There's alternatives, for sure - I've used Laconica and others and they are all good - but only as god as the friends you follow on there. So you tend to use the service they are using.

    It's not hard to make a microblogging platform (in learning web dev i made a fully functional one at - just pretty useless without alot of microbloggers - in my example I hadn't counted on Dogs not using computers ;)

    It's natural for there to be an ultimate winner as the 'micro blogging format of choice' simply because - unless Laconica and Twitter netorks we're combined (easy to do - and something some TP apps allow), a choice is required. Twitter has a superior API and is therefore, in my opinion, the superior product - but both fall flat without people. More importantly, Twitter is news - whether you like it or not. 80% of it's members joined in the most recent 20% of it's lifespan, so it's blowing up - same story with the iphone. It's natural the BBC Blog and report about these significant tech success stories.

    Twitter is clearly just an irritant for some - as are long phone conversations or text messages to me.
    It's made me feel socially connected again after illness. I get lots of interesting links to informative content. I share people's days. I browse news or listen to a friends new music composition through a quick link.

    The people I follow aren't 'mundane' - they're fascinating - they are people after all. People that over time you 'get' - and in some cases get to know.

    So, if you find twitter irritating and useless then that seems absolutely fine. Don't use it. It's really not worth getting so fired up. Seems a surreal situation. Looking back 'several' years, I wonder if people ranted at each other for using the telephone....well of course they did. Tech's moved on. Society has moved on. Either enjoy it, or ignore it.

  • Comment number 33.

    on point though - i'd add that in my opinion, largely self moderated social hubs like Twitter are unlikely to be sucessful marketing tools. They're networking tools. It is, for me, liberating and empowering. Simply great that the old boy networks have something to compete against them, at last!

    The 'spaceapple' story - well, I wanted a new MacBook too - and admit I tweeted the name once or twice. On reflection, it was rather like sending my entire address book unwanted catalog spam - and I won't be repeating it. I'd expect a backlash. There's plenty of services doing what this current 'noise maker' does - that still have the respect of their user base.

  • Comment number 34.

    Twitter - Tried it, didn't like it and wont be using it again.

    To be honest, I just didn't see the point and I wouldnt be surprised if it turns out to be the next big thing to go bust. Facebook have pretty much cornered the social networking market and anyone trying to take their place will need to come up with something very clever, addictive or useful to do so. Twitter doesn't do enough and what it does do seems pretty irrelevant.

  • Comment number 35.

    Problem is Colt, you can't ignore it when the BBC publicise it at the drop of a hat for complete non-stories, such as the alerts that some guy set up in his house that was on the main 6 o'Clock news!

    Whoopee do. Tomorrows World did that with the phone as a communications medium 20 years ago.

  • Comment number 36.

    yeah but you've got to admit - this 'amuse ourselves' web app me and my mate stuck up is vaguely compelling - for a second....>? well, maybe not - purposely pointless was the idea - and to chuckle a little at the reponses we get :P

  • Comment number 37.

    I think to have a got at Twitter regarding their monetization is a little short sighted. Their user base is big and its growing - I now use Twitter more than Facebook - I can see easy ways for them to monetise what they have, ok so the advert on the side isn't working - but what if they were to do sponsored ads on a CPM or CPC basis?


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